Hidden within the glittering razzamatazz of the Oscars in LA last weekend was an unexpected gem; 'The Phone Call' winner of the best live action short film.
Mat Kirby and James Lucas's film tells the story of Heather, a crisis call centre worker, and Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent as the troubled caller Stan.  
'It's just amazing that you make a tiny film in an unused office block somewhere in North London in three days with no money, and it gets to the Oscars' said Sally Hawkins the Golden Globe winner who plays Heather (more info here). 
The whole film is essentially a twenty minute conversation that is quietly devastating and deeply moving; the effects of which change the lives of both parties forever.  What makes this Award so powerful is that it shines a bright light on a hitherto hidden world of personal one on one calls between vulnerable people and those who take responsibility for their vulnerability at the end of the phone line.
As anyone working in customer service contact centres knows only too well, it is wise to expect the unexpected and not assume that all callers fit the 'norm' whatever that may be.
The whole issue of vulnerable customers has been widely publicised and it is a thorny and complex issue. The very definition in itself is challenging, particularly as vulnerability needn't always be a permanent situation. Each and any one of us can become vulnerable given life situations such as illness, bereavement, employment status, to mention a few, and of course we take these issues with us to the workplace.
The Financial Conduct Authority, a regulator which grew out of the Financial Services Authority, published new guidelines last year around the treatment of vulnerable customers. It's research showed that almost 800,000 people in the UK live with dementia, and just under half of UK adults have a numeracy level of an 11 year old or below.  Some 7.1m people have never used the Internet, despite surges in mobile and smartphone.  (View report). 
One of the reports conclusions was that '"..financial services need to adapt to the changing circumstances that real life throws at people, rather than being designed for the mythical perfect customer who never experiences difficulty.." 
I suspect that this recommendation holds true for just about every customer service design, regardless of sector. How many organisations truly consider changing demographics in service design?  For example, we are an ageing population, with more than 10m people in the UK over the age of 65 (a figure set to double in under 20 years time). This statistic doesn't necessarily spell vulnerability, but it would be foolish to ignore the feedback of this demographic in relation to service requirements.  This, in conjunction with other factors such as digital disposition, culture, language, and of course those elusive individual or situation dependent preferences which may change from time to time.
Understanding what's fixed and which elements are variable, lies at the heart of any good design. Clear analysis of these can help organisations become more agile, in their transition to a more digital world, coupled with increasingly challenging communications requiring empathy and judgement. 
The biggest influencer is without doubt the skill and aptitudes of colleagues doing roles similar to Heather, in everyday services where crises pop up sometimes.....or frequently.
So called vulnerable customers don't always present as 'victims'; instead seeming difficult or awkward, demanding responses to issues that don't have a clear answer, or indeed one that is always welcome.  Organisations frequently place staff in situations where they have to  explain the inexplicable or defend the indefensible; at least in the eyes of the customer.
The phrase "there are no more nice calls left" is one coined at CCA Leadership Forum  back in 2012. The group concluded then that most inbound contact centre traffic is increasingly complex, technological in nature or emotional due to grievances.
Predictions are always risky, particularly about the future, to coin an old chestnut, BUT we can be fairly sure about emerging demographics, uptake of devices, and a continued pressure on costs in both public and private sectors. There has never been a greater imperative to innovate around our service design to ensure that empathetic and empowered experts are blended and supported by intuitive and seamless self-serve.


And isn't it time that everyone in the organisation participates in, or at least understands the pressures at the front line? We can't all be at the Oscars but from time to time lets remember to roll out the red carpet for all our heroes behind the lines.